One year ago, the Department of Justice closed its case against Fort Detrick researcher Bruce Ivins, releasing a 92-page investigative summary declaring he was the sole culprit in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five and sickened 17. The report touted “both direct evidence that anthrax spores under his sole and exclusive control were the parent material to the anthrax spores used in the attack and compelling circumstantial evidence.”
Last week, a National Research Council committee released a 170-page report casting doubt on the science the FBI used in its investigation, leaving the Justice Department with circumstantial evidence that many say wouldn’t hold up in court.
“I think my feelings of mistrust of the FBI’s conclusions in this case have only been strengthened over the last year,” Jeffrey Adamovicz, a former chief of bacteriology who supervised Ivins’ work at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, wrote in an e-mail. “First the (NRC) report itself was delayed for release, and now that the report is out, I feel somewhat vindicated in my assessment that the FBI was overselling the science and its ability to prove that Bruce Ivins and only Bruce Ivins could have committed this crime.”
In the Justice Department’s report a year ago, it commented on the high quality of the anthrax spores and wrote that “the anthrax mailer must have possessed significant technical skill.” The NRC, however, wrote last week that “the committee finds no scientific basis on which to accurately estimate the amount of time or the specific skill set needed to prepare the spore material contained in the letters,” noting that the FBI never determined what method was used to create the anthrax spores.
The FBI and Justice Department focused the scientific side of the investigation on four genetic mutations noticed in the anthrax used in the mailings. Scientists developed molecular tests to identify the genetic mutations and then searched the FBI’s newly created repository of Ames-strain anthrax samples for those mutations. Through these tests, the FBI determined that Ivins’ flask of anthrax, RMR-1029, was the parent material for the anthrax used in the attacks.
The Justice Department report last year said its repository of anthrax samples “represents a sample from every Ames culture at every laboratory identified by the FBI as having Ames strain,” and that the FBI provided a “clear and thorough protocol for the preparation of the repository submissions.”
The NRC dismissed those notions, saying the repository was not ideal or complete. The instructions “were not precise enough to ensure that the laboratories would follow a consistent procedure Ã‰ Such problems with the repository required additional investigation and limit the strength of the conclusions that can be drawn from comparisons of these samples and the letter material.”
More importantly, though, Justice wrote last year that “the only complete genetic match to the evidence comes from RMR-1029 and its offspring,” and the FBI as a result focused much of its attention on Ivins and other researchers with whom he had shared anthrax samples.
Last week’s NRC report, however, said that Justice misrepresented its findings.
“The scientific data generated by and on behalf of the FBI provided leads as to a possible source of the anthrax spores found in the attack letters, but these data alone did not rule out other sources,” the report says. The NRC committee wrote that the mutations found in both the RMR-1029 samples and the attack anthrax could have arisen by parallel evolution instead of one being derived from the other, and the fact that the FBI did not explore this possible explanation weakens the Justice Department’s interpretation of the genetic similarities between Ivins’ anthrax and the attack anthrax, the report says.
“This is huge, because coupled with the lack of any other physical (forensic) evidence in this case linked to Bruce, this shows that the FBI’s central tenet — that the anthrax could have come from only Bruce Ivins — is without factual merit and is therefore just a possibility,” Adamovicz wrote in an e-mail. “They over-represented this possibility as if there were no other explanations.”
Gerry Andrews, another former chief of bacteriology at USAMRIID, said that after reading the NRC report, “I’m even more convinced now that Dr. Ivins had nothing to do with this crime.”
Andrews wrote in an e-mail that he believed the case needed to be reopened or that Congress should investigate further. Andrews pointed out several items in the NRC report that he disagreed with and would like to see investigated further.
First, he said the presence of a unique strain of a second bacteria, B. subtilis, should have been considered key forensic evidence instead of the FBI and NRC committee glossing over it.
“If a cloth fiber was found in one (or more) of the anthrax envelopes, you can be darn sure that the FBI would consider this finding as ‘key forensic evidence,'” Andrews wrote. “The presence of any usual/unexpected substance or material, in this case, B. subtilis, is VERY relevant to the case, it just doesn’t support the FBI’s conclusion that Dr. Ivins was the perpetrator. I believe that the FBI didn’t investigate this finding thoroughly enough or was deceived.”
He also said the FBI and NRC committee were too quick to gloss over the issue of the silicon content of some of the anthrax spores in the attack letters. Bacteriologists working on the investigation should have looked into several possibilities for how the silicon got onto and into the spores, instead of dismissing it as an irrelevant forensic marker.
“I don’t believe the high silicon signature was an accident, nor do I think that the (committee’s) conclusion on the silica is strong,” he wrote.
The Government Accountability Office is still looking into the federal government’s response to the anthrax attacks, and some lawmakers are still pushing for a congressional investigation, much like the one into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
What Adamovicz said he wants most, though, is for the Justice Department to restate its position on Ivins in a way that is fully supported by evidence.
“Perhaps they were once again overzealous in their pursuit of justice in this very important case, that perhaps they may have misrepresented the conclusions for which the data do not fully support,” he wrote. “That (even if Bruce remains their principal suspect) they can’t say for sure who perpetrated this crime.”